Lincoln and Douglass

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This is a slightly revised post from another page two years ago. It is in honor of Black History month.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without demand.  It never did and it never will.  Find out just what people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Frederick Douglass, former slave and American Abolitionist, spokesman for full Black Rights in the late 19th Century.

            In 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland by hopping aboard a train near Baltimore and making his way to Boston.  He did not flee to Canada, as thousands of the refugees from slavery did in those days before the Civil War (April 1861- May 1865)[1].  Instead, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, found work and eventually married a free woman.  He worked hard to educate himself and became not only literate, but eloquent, both as an orator and a writer. 

He became an icon of the Abolitionists, as well as the premier advocate for Black Rights, including the right to bear arms in the Civil War.  He worked tirelessly to have Blacks become full-fledged US citizens with voting rights and freedom to do anything (legal) they chose and live freely anywhere in the country. 

During the War, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln grew from doubt of the President’s ability and commitment to end slavery to one of warm respect.  They met many times, as Lincoln recognized his need of input on dealing with the issue of abolition and granting rights to the former slaves and the Free Black population.  The President found Douglass abrasive to deal with at times, but grew to respect his intellect and his insight.  Douglass criticized Lincoln (as did many) for not moving more quickly on Abolition and not fully immediately accepting Blacks as entitled to equal rights.  Lincoln saw that this had to happen eventually, but thought they needed to be educated into it and that the country needed to be prepared for it.

Perhaps there is some justice in Douglass’s critique of Lincoln.  Both were men of their time and products of their heritage.  Lincoln may not have been fully ‘modern’ in his views of the equality of the ‘races’, but Douglass recognized that the President was vastly in advance of the great majority of his compatriots.  In his time, he was one of the most misunderstood, maligned, underestimated, and undervalued ‘greats’ of history ever. 

Today, the US recognizes both these titans, wary allies and occasional opponents, as unquestionably great men.  Both were necessary, and both fought the same battle, but from very different vantage points.  As a young man of nineteen, Lincoln had already begun to abhor slavery and the oppression of ‘the African Race’ as an abomination.  He had said, “If I ever get the opportunity, I will hit this thing hard.”  This was long before he had any notion of becoming President.  He was not yet even on the road to becoming a lawyer.

Lincoln refused to succumb to radicalism, at least to the kind of Abolitionist radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison.  He was, however, a moral and constitutional radical.  Yet, even though he abhorred the evils of the whole slavery institution and system, he equally abhorred the idea of a wholesale violent demolition of it.  His view was that solving one great evil by wreaking havoc, mayhem, and destruction as some sort of hand of Divine Retribution (as per John Brown) would merely compound evil upon evil.

Lincoln sought a firm, measured, gradual approach.  He learned as he went, and grew into the man people would later revere.  He was far from a simple, simplistic ‘yokel’ lawyer from the backcountry of the Mid-West, as so many tried to portray him – ‘the Original Gorilla’ or ‘the Buffoon’, as the press so often vilified him.  Even his closest collaborators failed to see the real man and the subtleties of his mind and soul being worked upon by ‘the Deity’, as he sometimes called the God he increasingly turned to as his burden and need increased.  The great suffering in his personal life also drove him to God, although he was never “an enthusiast”, remaining quite private about his personal faith.

Frederick Douglass was understandably more one-dimensional.  His calling and mandate were simple and always remained clear.  His goal was fixed, and he strove to advance towards it for the rest of his life.  He too felt a sort of ‘Divine calling’ to do the work he knew he had been given.  It is perhaps understandable that he took time to recognize that, in a different way, Lincoln also knew he had been chosen for a great work and must see it through to the end.

For Lincoln, the work and the goal evolved in his vision and understanding as he evolved into the greatest President the US ever had.  His basic persona did not change, but his wisdom and understanding increased, and his insight into how to move in practical ways grew exponentially and rapidly as he found himself catapulted into a context no one before him had ever faced, and never has since then.

The Civil Rights Movement in the US rightly gives Douglass a prominent place in its pantheon.  He did much with little, and greatly advanced the cause of racial justice.  He also had enduring and significant support from a strong base of well-intentioned, well-positioned, and financially prosperous white Americans.  He was the leader of a nascent movement at a time when circumstances were opening new doors. 

Lincoln was often surrounded by those who disdained him as a person, mocked his ‘inferior’ abilities (as they considered them), and questioned his every move (including many of Douglass’s supporters).  He would have said, if the expression had been in use then, that all this ‘came with the territory’. 

Lincoln was rarely angered by attackers, detractors, and opponents.   He preferred to laugh – both at himself and the absurdities he was the target of.  He became exasperated at times, and frequently discouraged, but he would remain philosophical about the whole business, and seemed able to look at the issues with a kind of calm detachment.  Like Douglass, once he could see the goal, Lincoln’s eyes remained fixed on it.  He began to see how he had to move, how to find his way through the maze, how to bring some good out of the Apocalypse his country had fallen into. 

One of Lincoln’s strongest opponents was his main rival for the Republican nomination of 1860, William Seward.  A second major opponent was Salmon P. Chase, another rival for the nomination.  A third was Edwin Stanton, a powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives who sought to bring every decision in the early conduct of the war under close scrutiny in order to discredit Lincoln and his administration.  Lincoln’s gift as a political genius enabled him to incorporate each of these one-time bitter opponents into his Cabinet, although Chase continued to secretly undermine him.  Lincoln could have ruined him because of secretive conspiring but instead, he manoeuvred him into quietly resigning from Cabinet to become a Justice of the Supreme Court.  He brought Stanton into the Cabinet to replace the corrupt Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in 1863, thus giving him a chance to ‘put up or shut up’ about how to prosecute the War.

What was the eventual estimation of the President by his former arch-rivals, men who saw him almost daily and got to know him intimately?  I will paraphrase Seward’s response to a critic of Lincoln still protesting his bumbling and mishandling of things in 1862, with the war in full swing and the North in disarray.  The critic suggested that the country would be far better off if Seward took over, if they could somehow manoeuvre Lincoln into resigning or being impeached.  Seward told this man, “I have since completely changed my mind about Mr. Lincoln and his ability.  None of us measure up to him, and he outweighs all of us put together.”  Mr. Seward never changed this opinion thereafter.

Stanton often found himself crossing swords with Lincoln over strategy and assignments of personnel and resources.  They could engage in bitter arguments, with most of the vitriol and bitterness on Mr. Stanton’s side.  Lincoln’s calm persistence, often attributed to brute stubbornness, frequently later proved the justice of his perceptions.  Stanton was eventually completely won over by Lincoln, although he continued to be headstrong.  When Lincoln lay dying after being shot in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Stanton sat the whole night by his bedside mute with grief, for he had come to regard Lincoln as a true friend and a very great man.  When Lincoln finally expired, Stanton was heard to say with a tear-choked voice, “And now he belongs to the ages.”

Frederick Douglass had also come to recognize Mr. Lincoln, for all his ‘limitations’ on the race question, as a truly great and unique man.  He said this:

In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.  He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State [Illinois, and born in Kentucky, a slave state] where there were black laws.  I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest round of the ladder. . . .

There was one thing concerning Lincoln that I was impressed with, and that was that a statement of his was an argument more convincing than any amount of logic.  He had a happy faculty of stating a proposition , of stating it so that it needed no argument.  It was a rough kind of reasoning and it went right to the point.  Then, too, there was another feeling that I had with reference to him, and that was that while I felt in his presence that I was in the presence of a very great man, as great as the greatest.  I felt as though I could go and put my hand on his shoulder.  Of course I did not do it, but I felt that I could.  I felt that I was in the presence of a big brother, and that there was safety in his atmosphere.

Frederick Douglass, On Slavery and the Civil War.  Philip S. Foner, Ed.  (Dover Publications, Inc., 2003), p. 52.

It is amazing what time and perspective can do to help us see things more clearly.  He realized that if Mr. Lincoln had survived, the reintegration of the South and the racial integration of the Blacks would have gone much differently and with far less longstanding bitterness to pass on to future generations.

The survival of the United States was Lincoln’s true legacy along with the final abolition of slavery.  His closest contemporaries, along with millions of his fellow citizens, attributed this uniquely to him, a man whom they concluded God Himself had chosen for the task.  Lincoln himself had an inkling of this, more than once voicing the premonition that when it all ended, he would be gone too, his appointed work finished.


[1]  The last significant Confederate force actually surrendered May 25, 1865.  Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 12 did not end all the resistance, although it is usually cited as the war’s end.

The Third Way, 56: Saviours and Salvation, 11 – The Jesus Story, 8: Conclusion – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 3

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#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

#6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

#7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

In episode #55, we concluded that Jesus indeed claimed the unthinkable – to have been (a) the Son of God and (b) God Himself, clothed in human flesh.  We did not resolve how this is even possible.  If God is indeed infinite and eternal, with all the “All” attributes (Almighty, etc), it is in fact, humanly speaking, insoluble.  It is a true mystery, in the classic sense of “mystery”- a hidden thing beyond our understanding.  As such, it rankles with us Westerners of the 21st Century who pride and preen ourselves on our science, determined to solve all the riddles of being and the universe by the collective superpower of our minds enhanced by our technology.

As to what Jesus meant when he accepted worship as God, and the title “Son of God”, we are helped by putting him and these ideas in their proper historical and cultural context.  The idea of “Son of God” was already current in the Roman Empire, and had already been in use for three millennia in Egypt.  Although the position of Emperor was still rather new in Rome, it had been quickly, if at first only unofficially, associated with divine status.  In Rome itself, deceased emperors, beginning with Augustus, the first Emperor, were posthumously accorded divine status by the Senate.  However, in Asian provinces the Emperors were being acclaimed as gods while still alive, and temples were built and cults initiated for their worship even during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). 

But the concept “Son of God” in relation to Jesus was far different in nature and degree from this honorific sort of deification already known from Egypt’s Pharaohs and Alexander the Great’s hubris.  Jews totally rejected such pretensions from a human as blasphemous and abhorrent.  They successfully revolted (the Maccabees) when the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to impose this on them in the 160s BCE.  They revolted against Roman attempts to bring idols into the Temple, including the mad Emperor Caligula’s statue (as Jupiter with his face on it) in 42 CE and paid dearly in lives, but eventually won their point.

In Jesus’ time and not long before, some Jews thought that the Messiah might bear the title Son of God, meaning Son of Yahweh, but it was unclear if this would involve actual sharing the divine nature in some way, or would be an angelic incarnation of some sort.  Angels had been called “sons of God” in the Tanakh (what non-Jews call The Old Testament), as had descendants of Adam and Eve’s third named son, Seth, in the Book of Genesis.  But, as we saw previously, it became clear that Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth in Galilee was claiming actual identity and equality with Yahweh Himself as well as Messiahship.  This was a step too far even for most Jews hoping for the Messiah to come in their time.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ amazing healing ministry, his down-to-earth association with the humble and downtrodden, and his challenging teaching “with authority, not like the Scribes and Pharisees”, as the Gospels put it, made him very popular with regular folks.  He was also terribly clever and knowledgeable for a supposedly uninstructed country bumpkin, even setting down the best challengers of the Sadducees, Scribes, and Pharisees. 

But most outrageous of all was his claim of authority to forgive sins, authority he claimed to have directly from “my Father in heaven” – the God of Abraham and Moses.  He added to this the authority to reinterpret the Torah itself, such as how to observe Sabbath and tithing, two of the pillars of the religious observance of Judaism.  He suggested that his presence boded the coming of something even greater than the Temple itself and, by implication, that superseded the whole Temple system.  He hinted broadly that his authority came from Yahweh Himself, but when the leaders’ agents plainly asked him, he told them he would tell them if they answered a question of his first – whether John the Baptist’s baptism was from God or from men.  They said they did not know, and he said therefore he wouldn’t tell them where his authority came from. 

On another occasion he repeated that he had been very plain with them about his identity, but no matter what he said to them or how he explained it, they would not believe.  He then challenged them, “If you will not believe what I tell you, then you should believe because of the works (deeds) that I do.”  But even these they stubbornly rejected, outrageously stating that he did then by demonic power.  Jesus asked them how he could cast out demons using the authority of a demon.  Satan’s kingdom must surely fall if it is so divided; but if he was casting out demons by the power of God’s spirit, “Then the Kingdom of Yahweh is among you.”  He warned them that every sin but one can be forgiven – blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – attributing God’s work to the devil.

In other words, Jesus offered “many proofs” of his Messiahship and special relationship to Yahweh as His Son during his earthly life, but the final and ultimate proof came after he died – the resurrection!  Without the resurrection, we could assign Jesus to a well-known sort of category—the well-meaning prophetic voice preaching God’s coming judgment on the oppressors and abusers of humanity and creation and his coming reign when all will be set right.  But in the end, like all the others, he is eliminated by the powers he denounces, and ends up as another footnote in history.

But, as we have said now repeatedly, Jesus won’t stay in that box.  No such category fits him.  He is not a Buddha, “showing us the way”; he says “I am the Way”.  He is not another prophet in a list of twenty-eight (as Islam categorizes him) who preach Islam (“submission” to Allah) or eternal hellfire and earthly annihilation for the infidel.  In contrast, he boldly declares “Before Abraham was, I AM.”  “I AM” is a direct claim to the name of God Himself as applying to him.  So did his hearers at that time understand what he had said.  They took up stones to stone him then and there, “but he hid himself from them.”  At last, having been put to death for his frontal assault on what the establishment and, in the end, even regular folks were prepared to possibly accept about him, he simply did not stay dead!

Perhaps he was just a madman?  In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis masterfully dismantles the typical categorizations people over the millennia have concocted to dispose of this so-disturbing historical anomaly.  He says there are only three options: Jesus was a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord.  If he persistently claimed things he didn’t mean and even knew not to be true for some nefarious purpose of deceiving people, or even for a good purpose of getting people to live better and be nicer to one another, he was a liar, not just a kind but misguided religious teacher teaching “love is the answer”.  Why do we continue to take him seriously if that is what we are reducing him to?  If, on the other hand, he really believed what he said about himself, but was deceived about himself, suffering from hysterical delusions of grandeur, then he was a pure madman, and we should certainly shun everything about him.  But if what he did and all we see of his character and teaching totally line up with what he said about himself then we have only one option left: He is who he said he is – Lord of life and God-in-the-flesh.  No other options are possible. 

So what proof is there for his actual, real, physical resurrection?  We are not talking about some sort of ethereal continuation of his presence and legacy in a mystical sense, although many would attest to that.  Many liberal theologians say that is all that really happened.  Jesus himself promised that his Father would send his followers the Holy Spirit to empower them to continue his work and bring his life and message to the whole world.  BUT!!  he was very clear that he would rise physically from the grave, just as the prophets had said: “The only sign that will be given to this generation is the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and be raised again.”

All the “proof” of the resurrection is circumstantial, unless Jesus himself pays a personal visit in his resurrected form, as we see described in the Four Gospels.  There is millennia-old Christian tradition associated with two empty tombs in Jerusalem.  One of the two is extremely likely the actual tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was laid on a late Friday afternoon in April 29 or 30 CE (or perhaps 33 CE).  There were multiple eye-witness encounters with the risen Jesus, both in the Gospels, then in Acts, when Saul of Tarsus encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. 

Outside the New Testament, there are personal testimonies of such encounters of many with the risen Jesus since then, including in the recent past.  (Personally, I tremble at the thought but I still long to see him in person, in the flesh.)  But of course, none of this will qualify as scientific or “definitive”. 

Historically and socially, there is the enduring Christian Church and religion, which both stand on the declaration that Jesus Christ is the risen Messiah and Son of God.  Millions across two millennia have claimed and continue to claim to have had personal encounters with Jesus, rarely in his “glorified” physical body, but unmistakably with his presence through the Spirit.  (This I can claim too.)  

Millions have been ready and willing to die as witnesses to his reality and his resurrection, and millions continue to be ready and willing.  In the last decade alone, close to 100 000 Christians have actually done so in many countries (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria, to name a few), and now  including even churches in the United States where Christ- and Christian-hating terrorists have several times rampaged on Sunday mornings in the last few years.

Attested and verified healings and miracles continue to happen regularly under the authority of the name of Jesus as risen Lord and God’s Son.  The media ignore these things and skeptics mock, but there are incontrovertible occurrences of such things. 

Works of love, compassion, charity, and justice continue to be done daily by thousands around the world inspired by this living Lord’s presence and Spirit in those who do them.  In fact, a very large proportion of such work on behalf of the most oppressed and most downtrodden is done by compassionate souls acting because of their commitment to Jesus’ mission to bring God’s love and compassion – essential elements of the coming of His Kingdom – to those who are most despised, afflicted, and defenceless.  Scratch below the surface of almost any such work, and Christians will be found intimately involved.  (Jesus: “If you give even so much as a cup of cold water in my name to the least of these brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”)

It is easy to point the finger of fault and accusation at the human failings of those who have followed Jesus in the past and who follow him today.  At some point, this becomes empty and tired refusnikism.  There are mountains of evidence about the actual reality of Jesus and his claim to be humanity’s one true Saviour and Lord.  Writing it all off with facile mockery and disdain because of the wrongs committed by some who have claimed to have acted in his name but done horrific things he would never countenance will not excuse refusing to actually look at him and daring to see if he will encounter anyone who comes seeking. 

His words about seeking him out were simple, generous, and crystal clear:“Ask, and you will receive.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and it will be opened to you.”  And, “The one who seeks me I will certainly not reject.”

While none of this evidence (see above and below) “proves” that Jesus is the Son of God and God-Man, little of most of the enormous works now in progress for the betterment of our human condition would be happening if it were not for those who are passionately inspired by their faith in and personal experience with Jesus as a living Saviour today.  If Christ were not truly risen, his followers would long ago have abandoned his teaching, for it was centred on his own mission and identity as God’s final answer to humanity’s estrangement from the Creator, from one another, from our own true selves, and from the Creation we were made to care for and watch over as its intended caretakers.  And if those followers had not been doing his works and were to cease now from doing them, however inadequately they have been done and are being done now, the human condition would be immeasurably worse and more hopeless.

Those who wish that Jesus would just go away, or that his followers would just shut up or disappear, thinking this would make the world a better place, are incredibly naive and deceived.  They have adopted a wilful blindness and incalculably impoverished themselves and the world they think they know how to save.

There is a great deal more that could be said regarding areas such as education, social justice, and healthcare and their Christ-inspired roots in the West and, via the West’s world-reach, all over the world, but we will conclude with what Jesus said:“No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friend….  Do not believe only what I have told you [and shown you]; believe because of the works that I do [and that my followers now do as my bodily presence in the world].”

The Third Way, 55: Saviours and Salvation, 10 – The Jesus Story, 7 – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 2

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#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

“Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, son of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth” – these are the sonship titles of Jesus.  We saw previously that the first two in this list were not-so-subtle claims to Messiahship.  Jesus of Nazareth, the upstart son of a carpenter from a nowhereville little village called Nazareth in First-Century Israel’s boondocks in Galilee, had outrageously accepted each of those appellations as his own proper designation.  He constantly called himself “The Son of Man” and he never refused being called “Son of David” when others called him that.

As to “Son of God”, there are several occurrences of his being openly called this by someone else, and he does not deny its relevance.  The first time is when Jesus calms the storm.  The disciples are recorded to have worshipped him and said “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32).  Later his closest disciple, Simon bar-Jonah, whom Jesus renamed Peter (the Rock) – see Matthew 16:16 and The Third Way 54 – answered for all the disciples after Jesus had asked “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus tells Peter that his Father in Heaven had revealed this to him.  Therefore, Jesus fully acknowledges the title and identity. 

The last time is far different.  It is during Jesus’ trumped-up trial before the Sanhedrin.  The High Priest challenges him to answer clearly, “Are you or are you not, the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One [Yahweh-God].”  Jesus answers “(It is) As you say” or “You are right in saying I am” (Luke 22: 70b).  It is a definite, “Yes I am.”  It was enough to have the court condemn him to death for blasphemy—assuming it was false, as all the judge-jurymen did.[i]

The other more subtle approach to claiming a special “Sonship” status with God which Jesus makes is by consistently calling God “my Father” and “my Father in Heaven”.  This was not a time like ours when everyone went about calling all humans “children of God” or “sons and daughters of God” by virtue of being God’s creatures.   The Gospels are contextually quite clear that Jesus was consistently and repeatedly claiming some kind of unique relationship with the Creator-God, with Yahweh-God, the God of Israel who was also the One God, the only true God, the Maker of the whole universe, which is how Israel and Jews saw their God.  The gods of all the other nations were false, zeros, nothings, no gods at all or, worse yet, demons.

But just how far did this claim to a unique relationship with the One-and-Only-True-God go?  The short answer is “far enough to get him killed by the Jewish leaders for blasphemy, and far enough to convince Pontius Pilate to collaborate with even though he appears to have had significant misgivings.”  As John’s Gospel recounts, Pilate sought to find a way to release Jesus as innocent, but priests tell Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”  They convince Pilate to crucify him by saying that Jesus’ claim to be a king makes him Caesar’s enemy, and Pilate cannot escape his duty as governor to condemn anyone suspected of raising rebellion.

Thus, it is clear that Jesus accepted worship and being called “the Son of the Living God”.  When asked directly by the High Priest, he declared he was the Son of God, and that the Jewish leaders understood this to mean that he claimed a supernatural identity, not just the ordinary Jewish status of being a “son of God” through Adam and Abraham, the God-chosen ancestor of all Jews.  The Talmud’s vitriolic references to Jesus and the “sect of the Nazarenes” reinforce this understanding.  The ensuing hostility of First-Century Judaism to the Jesus Movement also confirms this.

What did Jesus himself mean by “Son of God”?  We can get closest to it by referring to what the Gospel writers report as his description of that relationship.  Here are some of those declarations:

“Whoever acknowledges me before men [human beings] I will also acknowledge him [her] before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men [human beings] I will also disown him [her] before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10: 32-3)

“He who received you receives me, and he [she] who received me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40 – the context clearly refers to God as “the one who sent me”.)

Most of what we see Jesus saying about this is reported in John’s Gospel, which makes that Gospel seem the least authentic (most distasteful?) to the more liberal school of critics and scholars who least appreciate the supernatural elements of the Jesus story.  Throughout John’s version of the Jesus Story, we find Jesus saying things like:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3”16-7

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”  For this reason the Jews [Jewish leaders is the meaning] tried all the harder to kill him … he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (5:18)

“I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty …. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.  For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (6: 35, 37-8)

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man [an oblique reference to his coming crucifixion], then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.  The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (8: 28-9)

“My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.  Though you do not know him, I know him …. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews [leaders] told him, “ and you have seen Abraham!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”  At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” (8:54b, 56-9)

The upshot of all this is that, according to the first-hand sources, Jesus clearly claimed divine status, equality with God, a special relationship of what he described as a unique “Sonship” in which all that he taught and did was in complete harmony and union with God’s will and nature.  The final occasion we will mention is the Apostle Thomas worshipping Jesus and saying to him “My Lord and my God!” after the resurrection. 

Thomas was a sceptic, and needed a personal physical encounter with the risen Messiah and Son of God to accept him and his true identity as God incarnate in human form.  Having missed the first appearance of Jesus to the assembled disciples on the previous Sunday evening (Easter as we now call it), Thomas had refused to believe all the other disciples’ account of their Lord’s physical resurrection.  A week later, they were again assembled in the same “upper room” and Jesus once more appeared in their midst.  He turned to Thomas and told his to stop doubting and to put his fingers in the nail holes of his hands (wrists) and his hand into the lance-wound in his side, as Thomas had declared the conditions on which he would believe.  Thomas, all-atremble, declared, “My Lord and my God!”

We will leave this question here for today.  The records as we have them certainly point to Jesus claiming divine status.  As to “proof”, we must acknowledge that the Gospels in themselves do not satisfy everyone, especially in a culture now immured in scepticism.  Those who accept the Gospel accounts are a dwindling minority of people.  Now, when actual historical and archeological research is affirming their substance more and more, after hundreds of years of systematic (and often spurious) deconstruction and relegation to the “religious” sphere, they are seldom admitted into the rank of truly reliable historical source-documents.

We will close with the observation that all points of view are biased by faith-based presuppositions, and none more than those regarding the consideration of the identity of the historically titanic person of Jesus of Nazareth.


[i] There may have been a couple of exceptions—Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.  However, there is no record of any dissent with the verdict in the Gospels.  Some suggest that these two, whom Luke and John call “secret disciples”, were not present at this “trial” in the middle of the night, perhaps not having been notified that it was to take place.  Or perhaps their fear of being ostracized, or worse, kept them silent.  This is no worse than Peter’s triple denial or all the other disciples fleeing.)

The Third Way, 54: Saviours and Salvation, 9 – The Jesus Story, 6 – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 1

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“All sins are attempts to fill voids.” 

Simone Weil

In the previous two instalments we answered:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

Here are our remaining questions:

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

Four questions are too much for one instalment, but we cannot easily separate these questions from one another in any clinical fashion.  They all dovetail, and so we will have to consider them together.

#3 can be disposed of quickly.  For #1, the extra-Biblical sources confirm that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person who lived in the early First Century in the Roman sub-province of Judea, which was part of the greater Province of Syria.  For #3, those same sources, both Roman and Jewish, confirm that he was crucified during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was Procurator (a Junior Governorship title) of Judea between 26 and 36 CE.  As far as those sources go, there was and is no question that his crucifixion mean absolutely that he died on that cross.  Roman executions never missed, and crucifixion was a centuries-old near-science adopted from their old arch-enemies the Carthaginians in the Third Century BCE.  They had since refined it into perhaps the cruelest and most excruciating form of execution ever devised.  No one survived it.

Why then do we find strange proposals cropping up in the 20th and 21st Centuries in the West (e.g, The Passover Plot, 1965), suggesting that in fact Jesus never really died on the cross, but swooned from drugs and was taken down when he appeared to be dead?  This unlikely proposal says he was supposedly revived, thus fabricating the whole resurrection scenario.  One version of this tale suggests that he later succumbed to his wounds, but had hung on long enough to create the deception of his resurrection which his followers used to deceive multitudes into accepting Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah.  Another says that he actually did recover and secretly made his way to southern Gaul (France), married Mary Magdalene (if they were not already married) and had a family.  We are told that only a small circle of faithful followers actually knew of this, but they founded a secret community to carry on the true mission of Jesus.

Islam goes so far as to say that Jesus was never crucified at all, but Judas was substituted for him by Allah, who deceived the Romans and Jews but whisked Jesus off to Paradise to await being sent back to show the later Christians the error of their ways.  How this created the Church is unexplained, except to say that the Apostles deceived people somehow.

Of course, the sensationalist e-media and conventional tabloid media love these kinds of conspiracy stories and are very ready to capitalize on them for purposes of profit, entertainment (e.g. The Da Vinci Code), or perhaps straight-on hostility to establishment or any form of Christianity.

One way or the other in these scenarios, Jesus died and is still dead (except in the Islamic account), like everyone else who ever lived, so why get into knots about it?  But that is the whole (missing of the) point.  Citing eye-witnesses who had nothing to gain by lying, and in fact risked their lives to testify that Jesus resurrected,Christians and the Christian Church have declared since the very first that Jesus really and absolutely died on that cross, but did not stay dead!  Thirty-Six hours later, he was alive again, and he is still alive, with a real physical body, to this day.  No human agency participated in his resurrection in any way.  And, Christians say, he will remain alive forever.

Furthermore, Jesus himself declared ahead of the event, and the Church maintains, that his resurrection is also a seal of promise from God that those who commit their lives to him will also be raised from death in the same way with the same kind of indestructible body.  There is thus a universe of difference between saying he died on the cross but the story of his resurrection was untrue, or he escaped death on the cross but died later like anyone else and is still dead, and the declaration of his disciples and the Church that he rose incorruptible and promises the same to anyone who will accept him as Lord and Saviour.

Let us consider #4 – Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

Once again, we find some modern interpreters saying that Jesus never clearly claimed to be Israel’s expected Messiah, and probably claimed nothing more for himself than being a prophet in the long line of prophets found in ancient Israel’s history since the age of the Judges beginning before 1000 BCE.  As with so much else when it comes to this sort of debate, much of it hinges on modernist reductionism in the treatment of the New Testament accounts and those of the early Christian (“Patristic”) sources. 

Once more, we must reiterate that the latest and best scholarship, both textual and archeological, weighs heavily against those kinds of disclaimers.  If Jesus claimed no more than prophet status, his disciples seem somehow to have badly misinterpreted his life and message from the get-go.  The authorities seem to have thought he claimed a lot more than that too.  Seems like all his contemporaries, even the Romans, misheard him to the point he was taken as a direct personal threat to the whole established order, including the Emperor.  Leaves one wondering how two thousand years later we seem to be the only ones who have understood him!  Or maybe he was just a whack-job and they decided to get rid of him rather drastically, rather than just ridiculing and ignoring him?

It is true that, during his public ministry, Jesus could be rather cryptic about his identity at times.  His favourite title for himself was “Son of Man” and, at least until his trial before the Sanhedrin, he never openly claimed to be “the Son of God”.  But the “Son of Man” assignation, as per the prevailing view among the Jewish teachers of Jesus’ time, was tantamount to saying “I am the Messiah.” The Son of Man was the the one the Prophet Daniel prophesied about who would manifest the very presence of Yahweh Himself among the Jews of the Messianic Age, the time when Messiah would finally come.  There are many scholarly and contemporary-to-Jesus Jewish confirmations of this.

Another such title was “Son of David”—i.e., the royal heir of King David (ca. 1000 BCE Israelite King) who would establish God’s rule (and Israel’s) over the whole earth according to Yahweh’s covenant with King David made in the 11th Century BCE.  Jesus was acclaimed as the Son of David more than once and never said “No I’m not!”  In that environment, silence, or lack of denial, was indeed consent.

How about the identity “Son of God” then?  He overtly accepted it from his disciples when Peter declared it on behalf of them all at Caesarea Philippi (see Matthew 16:16): “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”  Jesus affirms this and calls Peter “blessed” for having received this revelation directly from his Father in heaven, the God of Israel.  (Mark and Luke give shorter versions of this declaration.)

Well then, does accepting the identity of “Messiah” and even “Son of God” mean he claimed to be God?  This is less obvious, and it directs us to how the Jews of the First Century understood this issue.  Was the expected Messiah going to be a sort of “super-Prophet”?  Was he going to be a being actually sent to earth from Heaven?  Or was he going to be a regular human being with some sort of direct connection to God as God’s anointed and adopted Son?  Not a “son/child of God” like everyone else “made in the image of God”, but a unique, divinely empowered and one-of-a-kind son who acted and spoke like God Himself?  All these concepts were current and circulating.

 The leaders themselves differed sharply on them.  The Priestly caste, the Sadducees, even questioned that a Messiah was ever promised.  The Pharisees believed a Messiah was promised, but did not agree as to which version was correct.  All who believed in a coming Messiah agreed that he would deliver Israel from Roman and pagan oppression and establish the rule and reign of Yahweh on earth, with Israel as the ruling people and Jerusalem as the capital.  A smallish number thought there might be two Messiahs—one a “suffering servant” figure who would be martyred by the infidels but show Israel how to truly live for Yahweh, and the other who would come after as the mighty ruler.  Or could the same one be both?

More on this next time.

The Third Way, 53: Saviours and Salvation, 9 – The Jesus Story, 5 – The Problem of Miracles, 2

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miracle – an extraordinary event attributed to some supernatural agency. 

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

In our discussion of the candidacy of Jesus for the position of universal Saviour, we began dealing with the following list of questions in Episode 51 of The Third Way:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

So far:

#1: We have established that Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth, the subject of Christian faith and The New Testament, the principle Christian documents, is a real historical person who lived and died in the First Century CE (Common Era, Current Era, Christian Era).  We have established that, historically and archeologically speaking, these documents are at least as authentic and worthy of serious consideration as any other ancient documents which are generally accredited as holding genuine authority about the persons and events which they relate.  Our confirmation of these questions in the limited space of this blog has certainly not been extensive, but sufficient to point inquirers in the general direction of very convincing authorities on these matters.

#2: In The Third Way 52, we began a consideration of the claims made in the Four Canonical Gospels that Jesus performed many spontaneous healings and even some astounding feats of command over natural forces and laws.  For anyone wanting to or insisting that we consider non-Canonical sources, such as the “Gospels of Thomas, Peter, or Barnabas (parts of the Pseudepigrapha), they will find many such stories there as well.  In comparison, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are downright modest and subdued, even rather prosaic about the whole thing—as one would expect of a reporter recounting an event by mostly stating “the facts”.  In fact, their rather bare-bones approach, citing characters (who), time (when), place (where), circumstances (why), and occurrence (what happened), mostly without dramatic embellishment, should be quite convincing of their authenticity.  The only problem is, as we have said before, that the subject matter is the miraculous which, as we “awake” modern-postmoderns simply know and understand according to the laws of Science and the dictates of Enlightened Reason, cannot have actually happened and does not happen now.

But can we so easily dismiss the eye-witnesses as overly credulous and easily duped?  Can we so facilely discount the source-documents as having been posthumously “doctored” to play upon the superstitious gullibility of subsequent recruits to the new Jesus Movement?  How soon were such reports in circulation?  Immediately, according to the Gospels and even near-contemporary non-Biblical Jewish sources.

The Gospels themselves declare that Jesus began to perform his wonders as soon as he undertook his public career.  His reputation spread very quickly from Galilee to Judea and even into nearby Gentile territory and reached Jerusalem very soon.  The Jerusalem authorities sent investigators to see what was going on.  Their scepticism and disbelief is well described.  They were, after all, not the uninformed local-yokel rabble of the boondocks up north in the “Galil”.  When they could not deny that what was reported was really happening, they decided to impute it all to nefarious spiritual powers like Beelzebub.

When Jesus took his miracle-show to their very doorstep in Jerusalem and the intelligentsia could not deny what had happened in front of hundreds of eye-witnesses. For example, a local man born blind who was a regular mendicant known by many in the city now had become normally sighted and declared to one and all what Jesus had done for him, (John’s Gospel Chapter 9). The account reads like a totally true-to-life account based on intimate eye-witness testimony.  It is completely true-to-life in its characterization and story-line. 

In Galilee we hear of the scepticism even of those who had known him his whole life, even (especially?) his own brothers.  The Jerusalem establishment and their acolytes in the outlying districts know better than to credit such tales of abundant healings and even exceptional miracles. Even in the presence of the healed blind man of Jerusalem himself they refuse to accept any proof.  They sound very “modern” in their attitude. Even the healed man’s own parents are called in, and testify that the healing is real, although they tremble to contradict the official perspective.  All they say is to affirm that he is their son and had been born blind.  They had no explanation for his new normalcy except what their son had told them.  So much for the supposed superstitious gullibility of the witnesses!

The incredible story of the raising of Lazarus, a close personal friend of Jesus who had been dead and buried for four days when Jesus raised him, reads very similarly—very unlike a later made-up tale.  This event takes place on the very doorstep of Jerusalem.  Once more, the scepticism of even ordinary Jews is very much on display — the very improbability – impossibility – of calling a dead body well on its way in decomposition back to life!  His own disciples can scarcely believe he is going to attempt it.  The man’s own sisters warn Jesus that the body stinks terribly by this point.  But, to everyone’s absolute astonishment, Jesus orders the tomb opened and calls to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out!” and out he comes, his body restored to life and health.

Once more we see the authorities unable to deny it but unwilling to accept it.  If there is any explanation, it must be some sort of demonic force.  But the Priests cannot even accept that, being semi-materialists, basically Deists.

We could recite story after story, but the characteristics remain consistent across all four Gospels (some of the same incidents being recounted in more than one of them).  The facts are retold almost as if the writers are following the journalistic 5-Ws.  The stories do not sound or look like mythical or legendary inventions in the least.  “Believe it or not, but this is what happened.”

Of course the Jews of First Century Palestine were not sophisticated in their scientific and technological knowledge, but they were far from the simplistic, easily duped and easily manipulated caricatures of modern-day sceptical commentators and old-style “higher-critical” studies.  The well-educated classes were very like our modern-postmodern liberal “enlightened” intelligentsia.  Of course, there were factions of the “left” and “right” as we would now classify them.  But they were not stupid or superstitious just by virtue of being “ancient”.

The real question is why we deem ourselves qualified to write off eye-witness testimony, especially when, if it were given in almost any other source but the Bible, we would recognize that we should consider the possibility and probability of its authenticity seriously.  And, as we have observed before, the real reason is our cultural worldview, our operative reality-paradigm.  Here in the West it has been quite systematically developed over more than two centuries to eliminate Jesus and the Christian story from our cultural and social foundations.

If we can discredit the sources, we need not credit the worldview or continue to value its influence.  Yet now it very much appears that after all this enormous expenditure of scholarly energy and resources, those very sources have stood up against all of this scrutiny and profound scepticism.  They have come through substantially verified and validated in great detail.  How are we then to maintain with integrity this posture of automatic dismissal and ridicule of Jesus and his claims about himself as outlined in those very sources?  How are we to, with integrity, summarily to discard the Jesus Movement now called Christianity which is founded on faith in those claims?

We shall close this reflection on the miraculous elements of the Jesus Story by a look at the nature-miracle stories.  It is one thing to see a healing as perhaps explainable by some natural factor unknown to the ancients—like a psychosomatic illness, or some amazing spontaneous release of the body’s own “natural healing power”.  However, some of those stories, like those someone born blind or being definitely dead and returning to life, don’t fit any of those explanations.

But what possible “natural” explanation can we find to the tale of Jesus and Peter walking on water—in the middle of a violent storm no less?  Or for Jesus simply commanding a storm to cease, and it does?  Or changing water into wine?  Or multiplying a few buns and fishes into enough food for a throng of thousands?  We might have the story of the loaves and fishes covered by the “spontaneous” eruption of good-will sharing among the crowd.  However, the story is very prosaic and suggests nothing of the sort.  One would have thought that at least one of the four Gospel-writers, who all recount it with slight variations, would have observed such a wonderful spirit of sharing, especially since Jesus was all about loving your neighbour, right?

We might, very implausibly, explain away the water-into-wine episode by saying that everyone was already so drunk after several days of celebrating that they didn’t notice that what they were drinking at the end was just wine-flavoured water.  Seriously people?!  And yet this has been suggested by some determined parties seeking to find a way around these (for us scientific, sophisticated moderns) uncomfortable episodes.

Unfortunately, we can do nothing with the storm and walking on water stories but suggest the disciples were mass-hallucinating because of panic and fear.  Or maybe when Jesus commanded the wind to quiet down there was a totally incredible, freaky coincidence.

Let us conclude this episode with a comment attributed to Jesus when someone asked him about how to get incredulous people who are determined to go on living as they please while headed for perdition to change their ways.  He gave an oblique reference to what he knew would happen when the greatest of all his miracles would occur:  “Even if someone were to come back from the dead they still would not believe.” (Luke 16:31)  He later saw this very refusal happen when he raised Lazarus as the precursor to his own resurrection.  According to Jesus, those who don’t want to accept the most blazing evidence walking and talking right in plain sight will still refuse to believe.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

The Third Way, 52: Saviours and Salvation, 8 – The Jesus Story, 4 – The Problem of Miracles, 1

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“Like the jester, Christ defies customs and scorns crowned heads.  Like the wandering troubadour, he has no place to lay his head.  Like the clown in the circus parade, he satirises existing authority by riding into town replete with regal pageantry when he has no earthly power.  Like a minstrel, he frequents dinners and parties.  At the end, he is consumed by his enemies in a mocking caricature of royal paraphernalia.  He is crucified amidst snickers and taunts with a sign over his head that lampoons his laughable claim.”

Harvey Cox, quoted in Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. (Zondervan, 2010), p. 73.

 “You have conquered, O Galilean.” – Roman Emperor Julian “the Apostate”, 363 CE

In the citation above, theologian Harvey Cox powerfully summarises the paradox of Jesus. 

As Napoleon once said of Jesus, he never claimed or sat on a throne (at least not on earth), never commanded an army, never wrote a book, travelled no farther than two hundred kilometers from his home (not counting his brief sojourn in Egypt as in infant), never married and had children (despite the revisionist fantasies about this in postmodern culture), never got rich or, after he set out to minister, owned anything except the clothes on his back, and during his lifetime had but a few dozen faithful followers, even if masses followed him around admiring and hoping to get something from him.  He was revered and reviled by the same masses within a week at the end of his pre-resurrection life.  He was born in a far from pristine and sanitary stable-cum-barn.  He died the most cruel, terrible, and humiliating death imaginable.  He was even buried in a borrowed grave.

Yet, as the dethroned French Emperor who had ruled almost all of Europe and held all its great nations at bay for fifteen years remarked, “He has more followers today than any man in history and is the most revered and honoured man in the whole world.”  In comparison, he, the great Napoleon, had achieved nothing, and he too would bow before this greatest of all rulers.

Our last post concluded with this list of questions:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

Let us briefly consider #1: Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  We have discussed this before and the definitive answer is “Yes”.  The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals of Imperial Rome, written in the early 100s CE) acknowledges him and the existence of his followers, even in the city of Rome by the time of the reign of the Emperor Nero (54-67 CE). Tacitus states that Nero used the Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE: “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” .  Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions both Jesus and his disciples in his Antiquities, written in the decade of the 90s CE.  The Talmud mentions Jesus and his followers in a most unflattering and virulent fashion, pronouncing curses upon “the Nazarene” and his followers.  In addition, there are literally thousands of papyri fragments dated within less than a hundred years of Jesus’ death and resurrection that demonstrate his historicity.

#2: Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)  This question opens the issue of the reliability and historical validity of the official (canonical) Christian sources about Jesus, the Four Gospels found in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Whole libraries of books and articles and scholarly commentaries have been written on this subject over the last 1500+ years.  Once more, we notice the recent efforts of some very “progressive” scholars to discredit those sources and insert other “lost” gospels in their place, or at least alongside them, as equally valid and authoritative.  We do not have time or space to deal with this here, but we can say this: the sensationalism of such claims makes great headlines and attracts a lot of Web chatter.  But what is seldom said afterwards is that all of these attempts have collapsed in their own flimsy absurdity upon due analysis by competent authorities.

This leaves us with the issue of how much credence and confidence we can impute to the Canonical (accepted as authentic by the Church) Gospels.  Once more, this is not the time or place to rehearse the long process of establishing which accounts of Jesus and the early years of the Church could be relied upon.  Even in the churches today, relatively few ordinary adherents know and care to know much of this story.  That non-Christians and non-church-goers are often quite misinformed and filled with rather distorted ideas about Christianity’s foundations is hardly astonishing.

Over the last two hundred years, serious Biblical scholarship and textual criticism has become a rather arcane discipline, even to the point that it allowed extreme critics such as the Jesus Seminar to be given far greater time and consideration than they really merit.  When we cut through all this, the conclusion remains that the New Testament documents are the only really reliable sources giving worthwhile details about Jesus and his earliest disciples.  Archeology—inscriptions, ruins, texts and artefacts—has over and over again confirmed many of these details and vindicated the New Testament accounts.  Examples of this abound for anyone wanting to go search them out.

Let us therefore consider “the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story”, things like healings and miracles.  We will leave the whole issue of his reported resurrection from the dead for a separate discussion.

Why do we have so much trouble with reports of miraculous healings and outright miracles, such as calming a storm and walking on water and changing water into wine?[i]  Were people two thousand years ago just that much more gullible, simple, and superstitious than we are?  That has become the standard answer in the Modernist and Postmodern West.  Now we just know better, right?  Whatever was going on there, it wasn’t really supernatural—i.e. performed by some sort of divine or semi-divine power operating outside the laws of nature.

To be able to give the Gospel accounts a fair hearing, we have to do two things: (1) recognize our own operative worldview-paradigm for what it is, along with its limitations, and (2) understand, at least to some extent, the context in which the Biblical stories happened, including the operative worldview-paradigms of that time and culture.  Once again, we can give only a very brief version of both of these.  Nevertheless, I hope that what I say will still be “just”.

First, let’s state our operative paradigm in the modern-postmodern, post-Christian West.  (Apologies to regular readers.  We have flogged this almost to death in this blog over that last year.)  The West has eschewed anything but what can be reasoned and verified, or at least analysed, by the Scientific Method.  If there is a Deity of some sort, we do not consider the intervention of God or any supernatural power a factor in explaining reality, at least not for discussing “how the world and universe work”.  We recognize that we do not yet know and understand many things, but we trust that someday we will, once again by means of and with the power of reason and Science.

Further, our attitude towards the people of the ancient world is that, because they were so ignorant of so much about nature and the universe that we now know, they must have been quite naive, gullible, and superstitious, and therefore easily deceived, or at least misguided, about things they witnessed, such as apparent amazing healings and miracles over nature.  Even the treatment of such reports by liberal, more “scientific” modern Biblical scholars demonstrate this. 

For example, we meet an explanation of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread loaves and fishes, recounted in all four of the Gospels, as a charming moment when one act of generosity by a child ignited a whole crowd to share what they had with strangers who had none, and so everyone ate.  It seemed miraculous, but the Gospel story of Jesus praying over the first donated few loaves and fishes and their spontaneously “multiplying” is just silly.  Same idea for changing water into wine.  How about walking on water?  Well, that had to be some sort of mass hallucination by the twelve apostles who were crazed by fear of drowning.

You get the idea.

There are lots of problems with these facile “explanations” so commonly offered by 20th and 21st Century Bible critics, but I will limit myself here to one which, to my mind, is the most lethal to this whole approach, an approach which has outlived its “best-before” date by quite a few years now.

The major problem is this: the critics’ basic assumptions/presuppositions about the witnesses and reporters of these long-past events are just wrong!  The vast majority of them were Jews —men, women, and children of First Century Palestine.  Yes, almost without exception they believed in Yahweh, the Personal Creator-God of the universe.  Yes, almost without exception they believed that the Creator was all-powerful and able to perform miracles and supernatural events.  Yes, some of them were superstitious and many believed there were malevolent spiritual entities who afflict people with maladies and misfortunes.

So they must have been pretty naive and gullible, right?  Hmm.  But this doesn’t sound very different from most regular folks of even the postmodern West now, does it?  We see the same stuff now—just in modernized guise.  We all see and even experience this in some way.  What is your favorite talisman—your lucky bauble or day?  Check you horoscope this morning?  Say your ritual prayer yet?  Recite your mantra yet?  Avoid that black cat yesterday?

The real issue is whether we live in a closed or open universe.  Back to square one: Is there, or is there not, a personal Creator-God, able to act within our time-space continuum, and who sometimes actually does?  Are there other sorts of spiritual entities who also can and do occasionally manifest themselves?

Presuppositionally, there are only two practical answers – Yes or No.  “I don’t know” doesn’t cut it here.  If you say that, you are, in practical terms, saying “No” because you are not willing to ever acknowledge it if such an intervention really does occur.

[i]  C.S. Lewis wrote a marvelous treatment of this whole issue simply entitled Miracles if any reader is inclined to go into this issue in real depth.

The Third Way, 51: Saviours and Salvation, 7 – The Jesus Story, 3

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Santa has returned to his Polar enclave for another year.  Gifts have been exchanged and appreciated.  Family and friends gatherings have been enjoyed.  The northern hemisphere is locked into its white winter blanket for the next few months.  Dieting and detoxing from the annual binge of “holiday cheer” is under way.  For many there is a residual glow of well-being abiding for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or two.  For those of us who have nodded in the direction of the old Christmas traditions of the Bethlehem birth by singing carols and attending a church service or two and a having ceremonial crèche on display, we can return such things to their closets and go on with normal life.

If only the rest of life were so conveniently classified.  As long as things hum along in their expected course with only fairly minor inconveniences, we can mostly manage to keep all the big questions quiet.  But… sooner or later … there is always something.  “Stuff happens!”  Nasty stuff, painful stuff, even deadly stuff.  Sooner or later, it comes, and we all have to face it.  As Maximus in Gladiator tells Emperor Commodus before their final combat (paraphrased), “Every man stares death in the face; all you can do is smile back.”  It is a question of how we face the hard moments when they come.

Shall we be “as those who have no hope?”  Or shall our answer be courageous as we take our stand.  Shall we rail and scream at the injustice of it all, like Dylan Thomas advising, “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

Ancient cultures typically offered little hope of anything looking like “salvation”.  It was more like facing what appeared finally to be “sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).  But what about the cycle of samsara (Hinduism and Buddhism)?  After many reincarnations one could achieve moksha  and enter nirvana and so be (re)absorbed by Brahman, at last finding bliss and peace, although ceasing to exist as a person.

Perhaps a Buddha, a bodhisattva, would come along and show and teach the speedier way out of the cycle of suffering via the discipline of raja yoga, the way of very disciplined deep meditation.

Perhaps some prophet would reveal the strict path that would satisfy the wrath of the gods or the one God through a scrupulous adherence to these precepts.  Then, when you died, you might be promised a place in some realm of peace beyond the grave, or at least spared from the worst suffering of the spectral realm.

Or, perhaps, when you die you are just dead and no longer exist.  Then at least your personal pain is over, although the cosmos goes on in its meaninglessness (vanity), as Solomon put it in Kohelet.  If you are one of the most unfortunate for whom life has indeed been largely a “vale of tears”, this is quite possibly an acceptable outcome.  Solomon didn’t actually think so, though, with his cogent comment, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”

In the end it all boils down to what the universe really is, and who we really are in it.  “Why are we/am I here?”  That is the seminal question which, sooner or later, haunts everyone who thinks.  As long as we seem to have the strength and means to avoid it by finding temporary sources of meaning, or at least distraction, most of us run from it pretty quickly.

When it comes down to it, our final answers are faith-based.  Even an atheist answer is every bit as much faith-based as a “religious” answer.  Everyone who thinks takes a theological position for or against the existence of a Creator, a personal supreme Deity who made everything that is.  What one says about this foremost of all questions directs everything else in our life, consciously or not.

The real reason we have a Christmas time is The Jesus Story.  This story begins with affirming that all that is was created by a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.  Over and over in this blog we have discussed this as the very ground of reality.  It is the most economical and consistent explanation of why anything at all “is”.   Even great scientists who do not accept a Creator have admitted this.  By turning from it they are compelled to expend enormous time, imagination, energy and resources in searching for alternatives—such as evidence that matter is a constantly changing and morphing manifestation of eternal energy.

But even the most refined science and imaginative theoretical constructs cannot answer that still haunting question, “Why? Why does that energy even exist?  Where does it come from?”  (Usual answer: “Nowhere!  It just is!  It just came to be!  It is just always coming to be!”)  And on to, “Why am I here?  What does it mean that I am here?  Why does it look and feel like it really does have meaning?  Like I should have meaning?  Why do we spend so much time looking for this primal ground of existence and purpose if, after all is said and done, there just isn’t a purpose?”

And, perhaps more immediately applicable in a time of “Climate Crisis”, “Why are we so torn up about the crisis of our tiny little speck of existence called Planet Earth if it isn’t really special at all?  Why are we so driven to cling to our meaningless personal and species existence as if it is really wonderful and awesome in some way, and not just an illusion of being special and awesome and wonderful?”  Etc., etc, etc.

As we have said again and again, the best and most sufficient answer to all of this, the one answer that answers all the basic questions and is thus most probably the real truth (“true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it), the “Ockham’s Razor” answer for any philosophic types reading this, is: “There is a Creator who made all that is, who made us to know Him/Her and be in relationship to Him/Her, and to learn about all that He/She has made as a way to knowing Him/Her and becoming all that we are made to be.”

The best answer is the answer that most completely, directly, and simply answers the most basic questions all across the spectrum of our search for understanding and truth.  Out of all our contrasting theologies and worldviews, how can we settle on the one that is “best”?  How do we weigh the competing claims?

The Postmodern approach is, “Don’t bother.  Just choose one and go with it.  When it no longer works for you, just switch to another, or invent your own.”

The Modernist approach is to swear off all mysteries and religion and stick to “the facts, only the facts” as reason, logic, and Science, the greatest application of the first two, reveal the “true facts” to us via the proper methods of research and inquiry.

As to the claims of the Great Religions of human history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in chronological order of appearance – it becomes a bit of a mug’s game to try to “prove” the superiority of one over another.  From an apologist’s point of view, all of them can be argued, although it can also be said that they do not all stand up equally well to serious examination regarding the integrity and verifiability of their sources, evidence, and the character of their major leaders in history.

For Christians and Christianity, it all boils down to Jesus.  And as to this faith’s founder, it all boils down to a series of “True or False” and “Yes or No” questions.  Theoretically, this should make Christianity a basically simple faith to discredit, if that is the agenda a questioner is adopting, as so many have since the 18th Century.  And what should make it even easier to discredit this particular candidate for “most probable true story” is that its most basic elements are historically based, or at least purport to be.  Just prove its history is false, and voila!  

But first, we must first hear/read the story.  Then we must consider its historicity and what it tells us about the historical person Jesus/Yeshua.  Only then can we examine what it might mean, including what others have said it means.  At that point, we are in a personal position to decide meaning, and what we will do with the decision we reach.

It all sounds very rational, even “scientific” in the methodological sense of the “Social Sciences”.  But no one comes to a quest unbiased.  All hold expectations of what will be discovered, what we hope to discover, however loosely formulated or consciously held.  We all have presuppositions.  

Today we will end with a short list of basic questions that must be considered by anyone wanting to find out the “truth” about Jesus.  The reader may have other questions, or may have better versions of those listed here.  I offer these:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as his followers claim(ed)?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?